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Cuba Chronicle of Events
Issue No. 48 • February 16-29, 2008

Cuba Chronicle of Events is produced by the Prima News Agency (Russia) in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe (U.S.A). This edition is based on reports from PRIMA-News, BBC, Bitacora Cubana, CubaNet, Puente Informativo Cuba Miami, Martí Noticias, Directorio Democrático Cubano, EnergyLand.info, El Mundo, Cuba Today, RIA Novosti, AP, CNN, Reuters, Radio Liberty, Meatinfo.ru, Bloomberg – K2Kapital.com, MIGnews.com, ZENIT/Blagovest-info, ISRAland.


Cuba to Free Four Dissidents

Cuba is expected to release four dissidents who were convicted of “plotting to undermine the Revolution” and given lengthy jail sentences, reported Elizandro Sánchez, chairman of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Sánchez said the four men to be released would be exiled to Spain. The four —Alejandro Raga, Omar Pernet, José Castillo, and Pedro Álvarez — were serving prison sentences ranging from 14 to 25 years. According to Sánchez, Cuba has decided to free the dissidents after negotiations with Spain held in the first part of February in Madrid as part of an ongoing discussion of human rights issues. Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos was the first to announce the impending release, saying that on February 16 Cuba would free seven dissidents. The names of the other three remain unknown.

The four men to be released soon and flown to Spain were among 75 dissidents convicted to a total of more than 1,600 years in prison during the Black Spring of March-April 2003. Beginning in 2005, Cuba has freed more than 10 dissidents having serious health problems, but has not officially dismissed charges against them.

Released Prisoners to Campaign for Those Still in Prison

Pedro Pablo Ramos Álvarez and three other dissidents newly freed from prison and exiled to Spain said that they would campaign for the release of all political prisoners, reported BBC upon the dissidents’ arrival in Spain. Álvarez, Alejandro Raga, Omar Pernet, and José Castillo were among 75 dissidents imprisoned and convicted in March-April 2003 for terms of 11 to 26 years.
Álvarez, the long-time leader of the independent Cuban Confederation of Workers, described the prison he was in as  “practically concentration camps, or more than concentration camps, camps of physical and moral destruction," in an interview with Associated Press. “Imagine what it's like to live in a penal population with delinquents, murderers, unscrupulous people of all types."

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos announced the impending release of seven prisoners the Friday before, on February 15, stating that this was an “unprovoked” initiative of the Cuban Government. The prisoners, all in failing health, said they were “offered continued imprisonment or exile” by Cuban authorities.


Fidel Castro Resigns as President

In the middle of the night of February 19, Cuba’s official Communist Party newspaper Granma published a statement by Fidel Castro on its website in which the Cuban dictator announced he would not accept the position of President of the Council of State for the next five years. Fidel Castro also gave up the post of Commander-in-Chief. He cited his health problems as the reason. “It would be a betrayal to my conscience to accept a responsibility requiring more mobility and dedication than I am physically able to offer,” wrote the 81-year-old Castro.

But Cuba watchers say there will be no real change in Cuba’s policies while Fidel is alive.
The Comandante, Cuba’s unchallenged leader for nearly half a century, pledged to continue to “fight as a soldier of ideas.” Famous for his passionate speeches in the past, Castro stated in conclusion: “I shall continue to write under the heading of ‘Reflections by Comrade Fidel.” It will be just another weapon you can count on. Perhaps my voice will be heard.”  Castro’s brother Raul, who has acted as temporary president since Fidel ceded power prior to abdominal surgery in July 2006, is expected to be elected to a full term as president.

Ricardo Alarcon Re-Elected as Assembly’s Speaker

Cuba’s National Assembly re-elected Ricardo Alarcon, 71, as leader of the legislature for another five-year term. Having elected the Assembly’s leadership, the National Assembly met in secret to pick a new Council of State, the country’s supreme governing body. Fidel Castro held the presidency of the Council since its creation in 1976 as part of a new constitution. On February 19, he announced he would not seek re-election to the country’s top posts due to his poor health.

Raul Castro Ratified as President

Cuba’s National Assembly named the 76-year-old Raul Castro the new chairman, or president, of the Council of State, the country’s supreme governing body. The move officially ended the 49-year rule of Fidel Castro, who announced he would not seek re-election on February 18.

Communist Party ideologue José Ramón Machado Ventura, a member of the “old guard” of July 26 Movement members that led the Cuban Revolution, was named first vice president, the first in line to succeed the president. Raul Castro had been first vice president until Fidel Castro temporarily ceded his powers in July 2006. In his first speech as president, Raul Castro said he would continue to consult his elder brother Fidel on important decisions.


Cuban Bishops Give Raul Castro “Vote of Confidence”

The bishops of Cuba have given President Raul Castro their “vote of confidence,” and urged the new leader to respond positively to the anxieties and demands of the people of Cuba.

The Cuban bishops’ conference released a statement in Havana on February 25, one day after Raul Castro, 76, was confirmed as the head of the Council of State, succeeding his elder brother Fidel, who had ruled the island for nearly 50 years.

“At this time our prayer goes to the Lord and to Our Lady of Charity, out Mother, patroness of Cuba, so that the President and Parliament would have light of the Almighty to carry out with determination those transcendent measures that we know must be gradual, but which can satisfy the longings and worries expressed by Cubans,” the statement read.

“We also want to renew our vote of confidence and with Christian hope express these desires to the new president, Raul Castro . . . keeping before us always the common good of the Cuban people, whom we serve,” the bishops stated.

Vatican’s Secretary of State Unveils Monument to Pope John Paul II in Cuba

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, unveiled in the central Cuban city of Santa Clara a monument commemorating Pope John Paul II’s  historic trip to Cuba 10 years ago.
Thousands of Cubans attended the event. The statue is inscribed: “Open the doors to Christ.”

Cuba’s New President Meets Vatican Secretary of State

Cuba’s new President Raul Castro met on February 26 with the Secretary of State of the Vatican, its no. 2 official, Cardinal  Tarcisio Bertone. It is Castro’s first meeting with a foreign dignitary as Cuba’s new leader. During his six-day visit, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone has criticized U.S. sanctions against Cuba and said the Catholic Church would work with the Cuban government for the good of Cubans.

Vatican Expresses Concern about Cuban Prisoners

Vatican’s Secretary of Sate Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone expressed the Roman Catholic Church’s concern about a large number of prisoners on the island during a meeting with President Raul Castro. Wrapping up his six-day trip to the country, the Cardinal said the relationship between the Church and Cuba’s government “will always be challenging, but also full of opportunities to promote the well-being of Cubans.”

Bertone’s visit marked the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba. Following the late pontiff’s trip in 1998, Cuban authorities released a large number of inmates, including 99 political prisoners.


Spain Denies Asylum to Cuban Diplomat

Lorenzo Menendez, the former second-ranking diplomat in Cuba’s Embassy in Mozambique accused the Spanish authorities of acting “like Pontius Pilat” in denying him political asylum. He said the authorities acted in spite over his remark that he would have been granted asylum under Aznar. He was not officially told on what grounds the request was denied. Menendez was declared “an enemy” in Cuba for helping opponents of the Castro regime and is threatened with punishment should he return to the island. He might face more than 20 years in prison or worse for treason, desertion, and counterrevolution activity.

Miami Alert on News of Fidel Castro’s Resignation

The news that Fidel Castro had finally stepped down as President and Commander-in-Chief, after 49 years in power was interpreted by Miami authorities as the beginning of the end of the dictatorship. The Mayor of Miami called for an emergency meeting with Homeland Security and law enforcement officials to be prepared to respond to all possible scenarios in Cuba that might affect this major U.S. city.

Miami-area officials are primarily concerned with a repeat of the mass exodus from Cuba in 1980. The Coast Guard is taking measures to block thousands of sea vessels and boats hired by local Cuban exiles to bring in their relatives from Cuba. Seasoned anti-Castro exiles in Miami who had witnessed several outbursts of such euphoria say the Castro announcement was a cynical manipulation and another political sham.


Dutch Foreign Minister Hopes for Transition to Democracy in Cuba

Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Maxime Verhagen hopes Fidel Castro’s decision to step down is a step toward a new, democratic regime in Cuba. “I hope that with a new president Cuba will undergo a peaceful transition to democracy,” the minister said on February 29 in response to the Cuban leader’s announcement of his resignation. The Netherlands is prepared to help Cuba on its way to democracy, he noted.

The minister also urged Cuba to release all political prisoners, establish the rule of law, and create opportunities for the Cuban people to elect their own leaders and to launch economic initiatives. Verhagen called Fidel Castro a “controversial figure,” saying that his ideological inflexibility during his nearly fifty years of rule has made the Cuban people poor and had taken away their freedom.

EU Reiterates Hope for Democratic Cuba after Castro’s Resignation

The European Union said on February 19 that it would like to see Cuba embark on the path of peaceful transition to democracy now that Fidel Castro resigned. John Clancy, a spokesman for EU Aid Commissioner Louis Michel, told the press that Michel plans to visit the island on March 6-7 as scheduled, although it is unclear whether he would meet with Fidel Castro.

The EU’s objectives are to encourage peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy, respect for human rights, and fundamental freedoms of Cubans, said Clancy. He reiterated the EU’s willingness to engage with Cuba in a constructive political dialogue provided it involves both the Cuban government and Cuban society, he stressed.

George Bush, Gordon Brown Believe in Cuba’s Democratic Transition

U.S. President George W. Bush described Fidel Castro’s resignation as an opportunity for democratic change in the country. “I believe that the change from Fidel Castro ought to begin a period of a democratic transition,” said Bush, speaking at a news conference in Rwanda, where he is visiting. “Eventually this transition ought to lead to free and fair elections. And we are going to help. The U.S. will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty,” he said.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown also expressed hope that Castro’s withdrawal from power would lead to more democracy in Cuba. “This is now an opportunity to make progress toward a peaceful transition to a pluralist democracy,” Gordon told the press on Tuesday.

Clinton, Obama, and McCain Comment on Fidel Castro’s Resignation

U.S. presidential hopefuls released on February 19 statements on the resignation of Fidel Castro.
According to AP, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, a long-time supporter of the economic embargo, said “the U.S. should seek ways to encourage democratic reforms in Cuba now that Fidel Castro has resigned.” Speaking at a campaign stop in Ohio, Clinton called for the release of all political prisoners and said the U.S. should “work to gather international support in pushing Cuba to become a democracy,” which she pledged to do so as president.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Castro’s decision was an essential first step to a free Cuba, but stressed it’s time to release jailed Cuban dissidents. He has called for unilateral steps to ease the economic blockade on Cuba and to potentially normalize diplomatic relations with the country through meetings with Raul Castro.

Republican presidential front-runner John McCain said Fidel Castro’s resignation “is nearly half a century overdue.” The United States must press the Cuban government to legalize opposition parties and free media, release political prisoners and schedule democratic elections, he added.

U.S. Won’t Lift Embargo on Cuba

The United States has no immediate plans to lift the economic embargo on Cuba, Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte stated on February 19. He said he could not imagine that Castro’s withdrawal from power alone would change U.S. policy any time soon.

Bush Administration: Raul No Different from Fidel

The Bush administration said it saw no reason to think there would be any difference in rule under Raul Castro, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a daily press briefing in Washington on February 19.

“In terms of the steps that Raul Castro has taken, I don’t think they have been qualitatively any different than what his brother may have done in a similar position. You haven’t really seen any transition to democracy,” he stated. Asked whether the U.S. is prepared to consider any kind of dialogue with the Cuban government in the wake of Fidel’s decision to step down, McCormack said he “doesn’t see the basis for that at any point in the future.” But there is change ongoing within Cuba, and the process is inevitable, he held. “We remain hopeful that that course is one towards a democratic Cuba,” said the U.S. diplomat.

Germany Ready to Support Change in Cuba after Fidel’s Retirement

Germany is expecting a peaceful change in Cuba now that the country’s longtime leader, Fidel Castro has withdrawn from politics, Germany’s Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the press on February 20. He said the resignation signals “a new era for which we have great expectations.”

The German leadership, he noted, has been closely watching changes taking place in Cuba, including debates over reform in the country, Cuba’s declared intention to sign two U.N. agreements, the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and some minor improvements in the human rights situation. But, Steinmeier said further, deeper changes are needed in Cuba.

“Thereupon, we express hope that Fidel Castro’s official departure may open the door for a peaceful change that is so vital for Cuba’s political, legal, and economic future, and that the people of Cuba will decide their own future,” the minister said. Germany is ready “to support Cuba through the process of change if it is asked to do so by Cuba,” and to plead for Cuba in the European Union, Steinmeier said.

Vatican Cardinal Arrives in Cuba

Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican Secretary of State, arrived in Cuba on February 20, beginning an official visit to the island. The purpose of his trip is to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s historic apostolic journey to the island in 1998.

Cardinal Bertone, the Vatican’s No. 2 official and also the Camerlengo, or Chamberlain, of the Holy Roman Church, will end his six-day visit to Cuba on February 26. The Cardinal is the first foreign high-ranking official to visit Cuba after Fidel Castro’s resignation. In an interview to the Italian Catholic daily Avvenire, Cardinal Bertone has not ruled out a possibility of Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba.

The Cardinal said Fidel Castro had personally invited the Pope to visit the island. “Up to now, this has not been possible. In the future, we shall see,” he noted and added that the Vatican and Cuba were maintaining normal diplomatic relations.

The sovereign pontiff “is sending his special blessing to all Cubans, from ordinary worshippers to Cuba’s supreme leader,” said the Vatican Secretary of State.

According to the press service of the Holy See, the Cardinal is expected to meet with Raul Castro; to pray with the nation’s bishops; to celebrate a mass at the Monastery of Carmelite nuns in Havana; to unveil a monument to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Karol Wojtyla’s visit to the island nation; to travel to Santa Clara, Santa Domingo and Guantanamo; to hold talks at the Cuban Foreign Ministry; to attend a diplomatic reception; and to speak to university students in Havana on the subject “Culture and Ethical Dimension of Human Existence.”

North Korea Pledges to Strengthen Friendship with Cuba

North Korea issued a statement on February 23 in which it praised Fidel Castro as a close ally who did not allow U.S. sanctions and a blockade to hinder his leadership of Cuba. “The Korean people have regarded Fidel Castro as the closest comrade-in-arms and comrade, and will make positive efforts to steadily consolidate and develop the relations of friendship with the fraternal Cuban people,” the North’s official Korean Central News Agency cited the Foreign Ministry as saying.

The ministry wished Fidel Castro a swift recovery, hoping “everything will go well in Cuba in the future too,” KCNA said. “Fidel Castro has wisely led the party, government and people of Cuba to triumphantly advance the socialist cause in Cuba despite the U.S. persistent sanctions and blockade,” it said. North Korea and Cuba are among the last surviving communist regimes in the world. The two countries are on the U.S. blacklist of states sponsoring terrorism, along with Iran, Syria and Sudan.

Fidel Castro: Cuba Not to Return to OAS

Fidel Castro, who announced his resignation on February 19, lashed out at the Organization of American States (OAS). In an article carried by the Cuban state-run media on February 23, the retired leader said Cuba would not seek re-admission to the OAS. Cuba was suspended from the OAS in January 1962 under pressure from the United States. Fidel Castro entitled his essay “Who Wants to Be in the Garbage Dump?” “No one even remembers the OAS,” he wrote, saying he remembered that the OAS still exists by mere chance, when he read comments posted on the Internet on his decision to step down.

Soon after Fidel Castro announced his resignation, OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza of Chile issued a statement in which he ruled out the possibility of re-admitting Cuba into the OAS family in the near future. He said for Cuba to be fully re-incorporated in the organization, the country should undergo peaceful change to democracy through free and peaceful dialogue with its people. This is Fidel Castro’s second article after his stepping down on health grounds. In this article, he reaffirmed Cuba would “pursue its course” under a new leadership.


Brazil to Explore Oil and Gas off Cuba

Cuba’s acting President Raul Castro, Brazil’s President Luiz Ignacio Lula de Silva, and the head of Brazil’s state-run energy giant Petrobas, Jose Sergio Gabrielli, reached a deal on joint exploration of Cuba’s Gulf of Mexico waters for hydrocarbons.

Cuba is intensifying deepwater offshore prospecting in its sector of the Gulf of Mexico. Several oil companies from China and Vietnam as well as the Spanish firm Repsol YPF and Venezuela’s Petroleos de Venezuela have signed up to operate in Cuba’s exclusive economic zone. Cuba’s Gulf waters have also caught the eye of North American oil corporations that have been long seeking to loosen the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba. A U.S. Geological Survey report estimates that 4.6 billion barrels of oil could lie within that zone.

“The collapse of the Soviet bloc in the early 1990s forced Cuba to reconsider its economic policy and open up to foreign investment and technologies to search for its own energy resources,” said Cuba’s Minister of Basic Industries Yadira Garcia.

The minister said the exploration of the oil-bearing fields is carried out with the participation of foreign capital and specialists, particularly, from Venezuela, Mexico, Bolivia, Canada and China. Cuba plans to begin drilling for copper, lead, zinc, and silver very soon, Garcia added. Cuba opened its 112,000 sq km exclusive economic zone in the Gulf of Mexico in 1999. In recent years, Cuba has signed agreements with foreign oil companies to prospect and exploit potential resources that are worth $1.5 billion.

Castro’s Departure May Boost Poultry Export to Cuba

Cuba being the sixth-largest market for U.S. poultry exports, American agricultural and poultry producers are hopeful that a change in Cuba’s leadership will boost sales to Cuba. Cuba purchased 95,504 metric tons of broilers in 2007 with a market value of $76.4 million.
“Cuba has grown to be a top 10 export market for U.S. broilers, and the Cuban people are enjoying them,” said Mike Giles, senior vice president of the Georgia Poultry Federation. “The trade relationship between agricultural producers in the U.S. and the Cuban government is strong, and I would expect that to continue regardless of who follows President Castro.”

Foreign Companies May Benefit from Raul Castro’s Decisions on Investment

Raul Castro, has opened the economy to more investment since he took over as interim leader from his ailing brother in 2006, said John Kirk, professor of Latin American studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada.  As a result, Fidel Castro’s departure from Cuban politics may help a number of foreign companies widen their advantage over U.S. competitors.

According to a report from the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Virginia, Raul Castro has made the economy his priority, telling Cuba’s legislature he is “tired of excuses.” As temporary president, he settled the state’s debts to farmers and tripled prices paid to milk and beef producers, and ended abusive landing fees and refueling charges at Cuba’s airports that were making tourism less attractive, the report cited.

Among the potential beneficiaries of Raul Castro’s policies are those already operating in the country, like Brazil’s oil firm Petroleo Brasileiro SA, the Spanish hotel operator Sol Melia, and Canada’s nickel-mining company Sol Melia SA and Sherritt International Corp.  These companies already operate in the country. More than half of Cuba’s foreign investment comes from Europe, primarily Spain, and almost a fifth is from Canada, according to Cuban government figures for 2005. U.S. companies eager to deal with Cuba will need a shift in U.S. policy, said Kirby Jones, a Washington-based consultant to companies seeking to do business in Cuba. Until the embargo is lifted, “you're not going to see McDonald’s or . . . Kentucky Fried Chicken,” said Jones.

Raul Castro Says Studying Peso Revaluation

Cuba is studying a way of revaluing its national peso currency, said the country’s new President Raul Castro. “We are studying the implementation of Fidel’s ideas on the progressive, gradual, and prudent revaluation of the Cuban peso,” Raul Castro said in his first speech as president.


International Book Fair in Cuba

Nearly 300 publishers from 32 countries are taking part in the 17th International Book Fair that opened on February 14 in Havana. The opening ceremony was attended by Cuba’s interim President Raul Castro. More than 8 million copies of titles will be on hand to buy, according to organizers of this major cultural and literary forum.

This year, the fair spotlights Spain’s autonomous region of Galicia. San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress, built in 1774, is used as the main venue of the fair. After Fidel Castro’s rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, the fort served as a prison for political opponents of the new regime. Hundreds of people were summarily executed there on orders of Che Guevara, who was in charge of the prison.

According to ITAR-TASS, Spain, Mexico and Peru have the biggest displays of new titles. After Havana, the fair will travel across Cuba, visiting 41 localities outside the capital. The event’s organizers expect a big inflow of visitors and a huge demand for books. Such events traditionally draw huge crowds throughout the country. In the past, the Soviet Union used to exhibit books and other printed matter from its publishers in Havana book fairs, but Russia’s publishing houses do not participate in such forums.

Fidel Castro said in 1998 that there was no censorship of books in Cuba and that the only problem faced by Cubans was lack of money to buy books. But no bookstore in Cuba has “counterrevolutionary authors” such as Camus, Solzhenitsyn, or Adam Smith. Nor are they displayed at the book fair.

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The Cuba Chronicle of Events is produced by the Prima News Agency in Russia in cooperation with the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. Items are reproduced with permission and attribution from other news agencies. Please direct inquiries and comments to Editor, Cuba Chronicle of Events, Prima-News at [email protected] or to [email protected].